Safely Increasing Weight in Emaciated Horses

Rehabilitating emaciated horses to nutritional health is a challenge--there's a fine line between not getting results and risking the horse's health by introducing too much, too soon. Maria Luke, DVM, discussed one system used to facilitate weight gain in these horses at the 2008 Convention of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, held Dec. 6-10 in San Diego, Calif.

Luke focused on horses with body condition scores (BCS) between 1.0 and 2.5. Using the Henneke Body Condition Scoring scale, a horse with a BCS of 1 is emaciated, while acceptable ranges are from 4 to 6, with 5 being ideal.

Feed offered to horses in the study (which were housed at the State of Georgia's equine impound facility) was not weighed, but it rather was quantified with the system commonly used by horse owners--flakes and scoops. All horses resided in groups arranged by age and temperament. They had the shelter of barns, trees, and/or sheds, and wore blankets temporarily in cold conditions. Additional feed was provided when overnight temperatures dropped below freezing.



Dr. Maria Luke explains her approach to rehabilitating emaciated horses.
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To begin the rehabilitation process, caretakers gave the horses oral electrolytes and probiotics on Day 1. During the initial three days, they fed the horses three times daily, with each feeding consisting of a 70% alfalfa/30% timothy flake (5 to 6 pounds) and a flake (3 to 4 pounds) of long-stem coastal Bermuda hay. Luke noted that adding coastal Bermuda hay minimized the transient diarrhea that developed when only the alfalfa mix was offered.

On Day 4, they offered a grain supplement twice daily after feeding hay. Horses less than 3 years of age, or lactating or late-gestation mares, received a pelleted growing-horse ration. Each feeding started with a single cup, and then steadily increased over two weeks to a target 3-quart scoop (4.5 to 5 pounds). Nonlactating and nonpregnant horses ages 4 to 16 years began with 1 cup of oats and ¼ cup forage balancer, and over two weeks their ration steadily increased to a 3-quart scoop of oats and 1 cup of forage balancer at each meal. Horses 17 years old and older or those affected with dental problems were fed senior rations offered as a mash, starting at 1 cup for each meal and increasing over two weeks to the target 3-quart scoop. A daily pinch (less than ¼ tsp) of salt was added to all grain. Caretakers increased grain in quarter-scoop increments, up to 11/2 scoops twice daily, if necessary, to reach target weight gains.

On Day 7 all horses were dewormed (pyrantel pamoate or fenbendazole) and the coastal Bermuda hay was discontinued. A couple of adult horses developed gas colic 24 to 72 hours after deworming, and several weanlings and yearlings developed a cough and whitish nasal discharge that resolved within 10 days.

On Day 10, caretakers added psyllium per label instructions, feeding it monthly to manage sand ingestion that's typical in starved horses. After the first 30 days, foals less than 6 months old received dewormer monthly (pyrantel pamoate or fenbendazole), while all horses older than 6 months were dewormed every 60 days with ivermectin. Dental corrections were performed once horses reached a BCS of 2 or better.

Once each horse attained a BCS of 5, caretakers cut back on feeding the alfalfa mix by reintroducing coastal Bermuda hay, with a steady target of feeding only coastal Bermuda hay to those not growing, lactating, or pregnant.

Using this strategy resulted in typical monthly weight gains of 7.5% to 12% of the horse's body weight at the time of admission, and it hastened weight gain as compared to previous rescue guidelines.

About the Author

Nancy S. Loving, DVM

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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